Due, in part, to Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and also, in part, to the sub-3.00 ERA recorded by pitchers as a whole that season, 1968 is known as the Year of the Pitcher. Fifty years later, even with run-scoring at much healthier levels, pitchers are also receiving a lot of attention — not so much for their run-prevention skills (although that’s part of it) but for their ability to generate strikeouts. No individual pitcher this season is going to replicate Gibson’s performance, but the 2018 season might produced the largest single group of great performances in history.
Most statistical bars are somewhat arbitrary, but we have to set some sort of cutoff to denote a “great” season. For the purposes of finding these seasons, let’s set some minimum standards. While we could just make a list by WAR, that doesn’t include runs allowed, and fair or not, people tend to pay attention to ERA. Because run-scoring environments change considerably year-to-year, strictly looking at ERA and FIP doesn’t do the job, either, so let’s set the minimum standards as ERA- and FIP- both at 70 or under in a qualified season. Since 1901, there have been just 158 such seasons, essentially four every three years.
Here are some characteristics of these pitcher seasons:
- All but two of them — Dutch Leonard’s (4.7) in 1914 and Atlee Hammaker’s (4.6) in 1983 — exceed five WAR.
- Of the seasons included in the sample, 87% exceed six WAR and more than half (59%) exceed seven.
- The average WAR per season is 7.4, with a 7.3 median.
- No ERA or FIP exceeds 3.25.
- The average FIP is 2.40 and the average ERA is 2.23.
- In the last 25 years, there have been 3.4 of them per season.
- The 1997 and 2003 seasons produced the highest number of them, six in each case.
- Five pitchers met the bar in 2017: Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Luis Severino, Stephen Strasburg.
A bit past the halfway point of this season, seven pitchers exceeded the standards laid out above with Ross Stripling missing the qualified cut off by a mere two outs. Here are those pitchers’ numbers at the All-Star break, with Stripling included.
|Trevor Bauer||Indians||136.1||31.4 %||7.5 %||52||54||2.24||2.23||5.1|
|Chris Sale||Red Sox||129.0||37.2 %||6.1 %||51||53||2.23||2.17||4.9|
|Jacob deGrom||Mets||123.1||30.7 %||6.2 %||44||57||1.68||2.32||4.4|
|Aaron Nola||Phillies||129.0||26.1 %||7.0 %||57||62||2.30||2.60||4.2|
|Justin Verlander||Astros||137.2||32.5 %||4.5 %||57||69||2.29||2.83||4.2|
|Max Scherzer||Nationals||134.2||34.5 %||6.5 %||59||69||2.41||2.80||4.1|
|Luis Severino||Yankees||128.1||28.7 %||6.4 %||55||63||2.31||2.73||4.0|
|Ross Stripling||Dodgers||95.1||28.1 %||3.7 %||54||68||2.08||2.71||2.7|
Not included, but close to the standard, are Gerrit Cole and Tyler Skaggs. This represents only about 60% of the season, so it would be fair to assume that some of these pitchers will fall off a bit; however, the first three pitchers on the list above have a long ways to go before they would fall out of the criteria. Nola and Severino have a bit of room, as well, with Scherzer, Stripling, and Verlander coming the closest to falling out.
Historically, we can take a look at how many pitchers reach the All-Star break having these great seasons and how many end up there in October. Because we have data going back further for whole seasons, let’s take a look at the end-of-season numbers first. The graph below shows 1901-1973, the years before which we have half-season data.
There were very few of the uniquely great seasons between World War I and the start of expansion in 1961, though the 60s, a great time to be a pitcher and a decade that produced some all-time greats, caused an uptick. As the graph below shows, we’ve seen a lot more great years in the past 50 or so campaigns.
As I mentioned above, the average number of great performances since 1993 is between three and four per year. I suspect that part of the increase has to do with increased bullpen usage. The bullpens help pitchers from getting tired over the course of a long season and allow them to throw fewer pitches late in games, when they’re least effective. It is a very different environment from pitchers 30 years ago or more. Some might object to pitchers throwing fewer innings in a start and over the course of the season, but it has undoubtedly caused better starting-pitching performances on a rate basis. So long as the bullpens are at least as good as the starters (they are), we are likely to see better pitching overall.
As for how likely we are to see a record — one I just made up — broken this season depends on your confidence in the pitchers above. We can also look at previous first halves and see how many players made it to the All-Star break like the seven pitchers this season.
Since 1993, 88 players have made it through the first half with an ERA and FIP at least 30% better than average. During that time, 80 players have finished the season matching the same. Roughly as many players reach the mark at the All-Star break as those who finish the season. The pitchers at the half don’t always match up with those at the end of the season. Back in 2011, for example, when there were last seven great halves at the break, Verlander, Cole Hamels, Dan Haren, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, and Jordan Zimmermann fell off the pace, while Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee joined Roy Halladay.
Ultimately, whether we end up with six or more such seasons like we did in 1997 and 2003 is hard to predict. (I feel more comfortable guaranteeing that, unlike in 1997 and 2003, the Marlins will not win the World Series.) The projections suggest we could get pretty close, with Stripling and Verlander the most likely to drop below (above?) the line. Five of the pitchers are currently on pace for seven-win seasons, with Scherzer and Severino close behind that pace, though our Depth Chart projections see only Sale hitting that mark this year. If five pitchers hit seven wins, it would tie the highest mark since 1971. In that season, an amazing nine pitchers hit seven wins (Vida Blue, Bert Blyleven, Tom Bradley, Joe Coleman, Fergie Jenkins, Mickey Lolich, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Wilbur Wood). Since then, five players have topped the seven win-mark twice, and it even happened in back-to-back seasons. In 1997, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Andy Pettitte, and Curt Schilling topped seven wins, and in 1998, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson joined Clemens, Maddux, and Schilling.
Everybody seems to know that pitching is dominating right now, and much of the focus goes to the velocity and usage in the bullpen. We are also seeing some great performances from starters, and the quantity of that quality has few historical precursors. We might not ever see anything like 1968 again, but what a handful of pitchers have done so far this season deserves some recognition.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.